EU Travels Series: Education for Democracy, Empowerment for Political Participation

28 Nov 2022
Earlier this autumn, I travelled to Caserta in southern Italy for a meeting of the Erasmus+ BEEP Project. The BEEP (Basic Education and Empowerment for Political Participation) project looks at political participation for people who are excluded from democratic processes. This could be because of their legal status, their qualifications and skills, or due to a feeling of alienation in politics.

Written by Conor Thompson, AONTAS Project Officer for Capacity Building.

What’s the purpose of adult education? To be part of a community? To gain new skills and knowledge? To learn a new language? To challenge yourself? To have fun and meet new people? 

This is a big question that I find myself thinking about all the time. There are so many possible answers.

Conor Thompson with members of the BEEP Erasmus+ project teams
Gert Biesta, an educational theorist and Maynooth lecturer, suggests the purpose of education can be divided into three categories: education for qualification, socialisation, and/or subjectification.  

For Biesta, education for qualification means obtaining the necessary skills and knowledge to enter a field of work or further study.  

Socialisation through education is how you become part of the existing social, cultural and political practices and traditions in your environment.  

Subjectification is when education enables people to read in the world around them, form their world view and gain a new sense of self through education.  

Another Maynooth-based educator, Fergal Finnegan, wrote in the Adult Learner Journal that one of the key purposes of education is to build and sustain healthy democratic structures.  

Here at AONTAS, we also believe that adult education can strengthen democracy. That’s why we got involved in the Basic Education and Empowerment for Political Participation (BEEP) Erasmus+ project. 

The BEEP Project - gathering best practice 

BEEP identifies barriers to democratic participation for groups across Europe, and then develops teaching methods that can empower citizens to overcome these obstacles to participation.  

In October, we met our partners from Greece, Italy, Portugal and Austria. 

First, we shared best-practice examples. The variety of cases gathered was fascinating. For instance, I spoke to the group about the impact that the See Her Elected (SHE) project from Longford Women’s Link is having across the country. SHE empowers women in Ireland to consider standing for election. Our Greek colleague, Angeliki, told us about Vouli Watch, an anti-corruption watchdog based in Athens. We also heard about the Austrian Youth Parliament, student ‘Republics’ in Coimbra and the Open Government of Palermo. 

These examples, and others, will help us to borrow ideas of what worked in increasing participation, and to also better understand what doesn’t work and why. 

Locating Democracy in the Adult Education Classroom 

Next, we shared our research findings.  

Each BEEP partner was tasked with speaking to teachers and learners about their experiences of adult education and democratic participation.  

The tutors I spoke to all work at Dublin Adult Learning Centre (DALC) and facilitate classes on political and democratic education. Two tutors, Fionnaigh Connaughton and Sinead Hawkins, are currently exploring the possibility of running Active Citizenships programs at DALC, and Lisa Kilbride runs a Community Action class.  

Learners in Lisa’s Community Action class had all come to DALC to return to education. DALC provides a wide range of classes, including adult literacy, numeracy, digital skills. The Community Action class mostly has learners who have been in DALC for a few years. This class aimed to better understand ‘where the power is’ in Dublin City Council (DCC) and the curriculum is completely designed according to issues that matter most to the participants.  

Lisa uses an approach based on the ideas of Paulo Freire, following the students’ interests and then structuring the class around ‘generative themes.’ This Freirian approach couldn’t be more appropriate as even today Freire is still seen as a threat by those opposed to participative democracy. Former president of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro promised to “enter the Education Ministry with a flamethrower to remove Paulo Freire.”  

The work the learners in the Community Action class are doing is a perfect example of how adult education can help build a stronger democracy. They work to better understand how decisions are made and how they can make changes in their community.  

Starting with Learners’ Interests 

It was fascinating to hear of similar examples gathered by the BEEP partners in Italy, Austria, Greece and Portugal, and to see where our research crossed over and had similarities was illuminating. We all agreed that in education for democratic participation, the educator has to start with the issues that matter most to the learners.  

As Lisa, Fionnaigh and Sinead from DALC said, courses or classes shouldn’t start straight away with voter registration or election information. They should move gradually towards this, if the participants see that as accessible and valuable.  

The DALC tutors recommend starting with issues that are most important to the people in the class, discussing them together, and finding out more information about the root causes of problems.  

For instance, Lisa’s Community Action group have worked with local newspaper The Dublin Inquirer. Journalists from the paper worked with the group about understanding local authority decision-making and media literacy.  

These are just some of the methods the DALC tutors use to explore students’ experiences and community life in a way that strengthens democratic education, without focusing solely on elections and voting registration. 

What’s next for the BEEP Project? 

The insights from the DALC educators and others from across Europe provided essential guidance for the move to the next phase of the BEEP project.  

In this next phase, we will develop activities, training materials and resources to run pilot programmes with learners. These programmes will be run in Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Austria and Italy. After gathering feedback, we will be writing up guidelines for educators and recommendations for policymakers.  

As Fergal Finnegan wrote in AONTAS' Adult Learner Journal ‘democracy – based on full participation and meaningful deliberation – has to be learnt and relearnt, practiced and questioned.’  

Where better to do this than in the adult and community education classroom? 

Want to learn more? 

If you are interested in the relationship between democracy and adult education, we recently ran a webinar on Adult Education for Democracy webinar, facilitated by Lisa Kilbride and Dr Fergal Finnegan, connecting theory and practice and demonstrating how to bring democracy into the adult education classroom.  

Check out our Adult Education for Democracy Resource Page on Padlet.  

This webinar is part of AONTAS’ Imagining Adult Education series. 

If you have any further questions about the BEEP Project or the upcoming Imagining Adult Education series, contact Conor Thompson at